How to watch TV on your PC

Last updated 00:00 05/08/2007
RICHARD PARKER/Dominion Post
TV OR NOT TV: There are lots of ways to get TV signals on your computer, then send them to watch on your TV.

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With more and more entertainment available online, you might think that plain old TVs are in danger of becoming extinct.

Not so fast. The humble television still has a role to play in the digital revolution.

Until bandwidth is fast and cheap as chips sending video content over radio waves is the best way to send out shows that everyone wants to watch. And TV screens will beat monitors any day for size and image quality.

But the computer has a major role to play now too. You can use it to receive the signals sent to your TV and play them on your PC, which lets you record the files and do all kinds of neat things.

Your computer also gives you access to a world of niche programmes, delivered solely over the Internet, that you can send to watch on your nice big TV screen.

Getting TV signals on your PC
To watch TV signals you get over your TV aerial on your PC, you need a TV tuner card. Some high-end media PCs will come with these built-in, but in most cases you'll have to buy a card and install it yourself.

PC TV tuners are a bit like the tuner for your TV. They take a bunch of radio waves and convert it into an episode of America's Next Top Model, or if you're lucky, Baywatch.

TV tuner cards take an analogue or digital TV signal and instead convert it into a video file that your computer can play (usually a file format called Mpeg).

Probably your best bet is a hybrid TV tuner that can receive both digital and analogue signals. For the time being, New Zealand only has analogue TV signals unless you use a satellite, but digital signals (called "digital terrestrial transmission") is due to start next year.

TV tuner cards have to be installed in the back of your desktop tower. It should be a fairly straightforward affair, but you may want to have a professional to do it for you.

There's an easier way, especially if you have a notebook computer. You can buy a USB tuner dongle (most look like a bigger USB Flash drive) to get the same thing.

You can also find versions which plug into your laptop's PC card slot. That's the one that looks like a thick credit card.

Make sure software that comes with the tuner has the features you want. It should let you automatically record programmes at set times, fast forward through ads on recorder programmes, and pause and replay live TV.

Most mid-range tuner cards will come with a remote control and infrared receiver to control the software too. Some tuners will come with their own aerials, but you should be able to plug in the cable from your existing aerial.

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For tuner cards, check out the Hauppauge PVR-500 MCE, which has two TV tuners so you can record and watch different channels simultaneously. No remote though. $299 from www.computerstore.co.nz.

There's a cheaper model (PVR-150) that comes with a remote, but this only has one tuner and basic connections so image quality won't be great.

Internet TV
Instead of receiving TV signals through your aerial, you can use the Internet to find the video content you want. Content is streamed over the Net through your PC, so you don't have to download a file before you can watch but you can't save it for later, or short downloadable clips.

There is a lot of content out there, everything from Germany's finest cooking shows to Chinese soap operas. Often the word "channel" is a bit of a stretch for these operations, because they only post an hour or two of new material online every week.

They're often on quite niche subjects, but that means you can find exactly what you want. Like learning about nature but hate spiders? There'll be a station out there somewhere that suits your tastes.

Any time you're dealing with video content online, you'll need a reasonably fast connection so you're not sitting around forever waiting for it to buffer. Buffering, by the way, is when your connection pauses so it can download video frames to keep ahead of what you're watching, because either your connection or the website isn't fast enough.

You can use Windows Media Player or RealPlayer to watch Internet TV, but if you're going to watch regularly, we recommend downloading a player specifically made for Internet TV, just because it'll make things easier. These are often just plug-ins for the major media players but the make finding the channels that'll interest you easier.

Try the easy-to-use TV (www.tvexe.com), which gives you 300 channels for free and more if you want to pay, or the open-source VLCplayer (www.videolan.org).

Some sites also have shorter clips and video podcasts, which you can set up your player to download automatically when they become available.

New Zealand actually has a handful of Internet only channels too. Richmastery TV (www.richmastery.com) has about 30 minutes free each week on the subject of real estate investing. Shine TV is a religious TV channel which you can watch online for free.

TVNZ has quite a lot of news, with daily news clips uploaded to Stuff.co.nz, as does TV3. TVNZ also has its On Demand service where you can download new and old programmes, sometimes for free. It's worth checking out if you haven't already.

Reeltime.tv (www.nz.reeltime.tv) sells and rents movies and episodes of old TV shows for a few dollars to rent, more to own.

However you get your video on the Net, just be sure to watch your data caps. A few minutes of good quality video will take up a few megabytes, so if you're planning of watching hours of streaming videos, make sure it's not going to cost you a fortune.

Watching it on the big screen
However you get your content to your PC, you might want to get it off again to watch it on a nice big TV instead of your pokey monitor.

Getting video signals from your computer to your PC is easy, but there are a few ways you can go.

The first is to burn content on to a DVD, then chuck it in a compatible player. This is okay for the occasional movie, but is a big cost and hassle for everyday viewing.

A better option is wires. Your computer's video card may have the plugs to connect it straight to your TV, whether it's S-Video, component, or digital cables like DVI and HDMI.

Wires are a pain though, so you may want to go with a wireless network. This will stream your video over a WiFi connection to a device connect to your TV, where it's converted into signals made for your TV.

If you choose to go wirelessly, check out NetGear EVA8000 Digital Entertainer HD for PCs ($624 from www.ascent.co.nz) and AppleTV for Macs (from $449 from www.apple.com/nz). AppleTV can play videos straight off the iTunes online store and YouTube, but it's support for other formats is limited.

Whatever you buy, make sure it comes with the right cables to connect it at both ends.

- The Dominion Post

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